Oncology Nurses: Something Special
Those of us in the cancer community consistently hear a special story from patients and their families. It is about that "one terrific nurse" and how he or she helped the patient and family get over the shock of diagnosis, learn about what would come next, handle the rough patches of treatment a little better than they otherwise might have - and all with a delicate human touch.
We see headlines in the news every day about advances in diagnosis or treatment and we learn about the finer details of the investigations. But there's usually a back story we don't hear, the one about the nurses who helped make that finding possible, ensured that patients understood their treatment regimens, educated staff about the experimental protocol, and aided patients with such issues as depression, questions about fertility, and what to do once they returned home.
May is Oncology Nursing Month and it has been a time to celebrate and honor the dedicated oncology nurses who play a role in nearly every aspect of oncology, from the lab to the bedside. Ask somebody who works with an oncology nurse and you will undoubtedly hear terms such as "intelligent," "highly skilled," "dedicated," and "compassionate." And when you consider the breadth of work in which these health care professionals are involved, from genetic testing to end-of-life care, it's easy to understand why.
"Oncology nurses have to have a combination of knowledge about all aspects of patient care and the human touch to understand what patients with cancer are going through," says Dr. Clare Hastings, the chief of Nursing and Patient Care Services at the National Institutes of Health Warren Grant Magnuson Clinical Center. Many oncology nurses often have advanced certifications from the Oncology Nursing Society - a true leader in advancing cancer research and care - and unmatched clinical experience. "They bring a body of knowledge to the job that others just don't have," Dr. Hastings adds.
In the NIH Clinical Center, at NCI Divisions and the NCI Center for Cancer Research (CCR), and in Cancer Centers and community oncology clinics and physician's offices across the country, oncology nurses also are integral to the research and care process. They are study project managers, regulatory specialists, and educators. And, especially these days, oncology nurses have to be experts on new technologies, meaning that, as one colleague put it, they have to be "high tech and high touch."
One significant trend that affects every one of us is the current nursing shortage. Over the next 15 years, it's estimated that more than 1.1 million nursing positions will go unfilled, something that will clearly place a tremendous amount of strain on the ability to provide the highest quality of care to cancer patients.
NCI plays an important role in promoting oncology nursing through an innovative fellowship program cosponsored by CCR and the NIH Clinical Center. Nurse-fellows participate in an intense didactic and clinical program - working directly with patients, but also getting important exposure to many aspects of clinical research. They also work with nurse practitioners and genetic counselors, to cite just a few examples. The ONS also has some exciting programs to attract student nurses to oncology, including a job shadowing program operated primarily through the organization's 218 chapters.
Simply put, oncology nurses improve patient care and quality of life. And when we talk about the importance of treating the whole patient, one need look no further for leaders than oncology nurses. They are something special, and we could all learn a thing or two from them.
Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach